On the horns of a dilemma

Tamsyn Imison

Tamsyn Imison looks at a debate on decisions headteachers face in the interests of their pupils. HYPOTHETICALS: GROWING PAINS. BBC2, July 12, 7.30-8.30pm

Being responsible for young people frequently puts educationists on the spot. We have to make instant decisions on appropriate action to take in a "child's interest". This can place us in conflict with families and take us into areas where we are seriously constrained by legislation, where flexibility needed for the long-term interests of a child is outside the law.

Vincent Hanna is the moderator in "Growing Pains", the second in a new series of Hypotheticals, who challenges a brave group including teachers, social workers, care workers, police, magistrates and politicians. There is no time for reflection and these professionals co-operate in sharing with us how they would respond to increasingly horrendous dilemmas that often face them in their working lives, from the slashing of a girl's face by another pupil, to an unsubstantiated claim of sexual abuse against a member of staff. How would you deal with them?

The issues for us as teachers, managing such situations, are rarely absolutely clear. For some there are real difficulties to face these dilemmas at all. It may seem simpler to brush things under the carpet in the hope that time will resolve things. One successful head I knew used to swear by the deadly sin sloth. There are others who act swiftly with total confidence that their decision is the right one. For most of us there is a need to balance acting swiftly and effectively with building in some reflection time.

There are real issues over keeping things in-house or involving outside agencies. Most cases would be helped by well-debated and agreed policies that have been accepted and understood by parents, students and teachers as well as ratified by governors.

Confidentiality is less easy. One of the heads in the programme said he would respect the child's confidence and teachers' unions might well support him over that. The other head said, "I would never promise confidentiality". Maybe the real answer is to be more canny and while not promising confidentiality establish a situation of trust where students feel they have a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear they could turn to for advice. If then faced with making such a decision, it would be sensible to consult with trusted colleagues, with one's own union the Secondary Heads Association helpline regularly supports and advises heads and deputies in these situations and if possible consult with the chair of governors so that a joint, agreed action is taken and you are not out on your own.

Child protection procedures are very hard on teachers or other adults who have allegations made against them by a child. It is critical to follow laid-down procedures and maintained schools have a real advantage when the local authority has developed clear policies and helplines. However, it is horrific to manage such situations. The head who was challenged on this, in the programme, said, "I would say sorry to the teacher. I would not be judgmental. " This seems right to me. It is critical that a teacher being suspended understands that although a standard procedure is being followed, the head managing it empathises with their plight. Diplomatic silence must be kept in school, as far as possible during any investigation, so that the teacher's return is as easy as possible. Counselling should be considered and national field officers in all unions are experienced at giving support to their members. There might be concerns about how this is handled at local level but it is less likely to be problematic if school unions are involved in policy making.

This programme made me think about my own management and how I would have responded. It reinforced my view that it is critical to work with others in support of both children and colleagues. It is critical to have clear guidelines to discuss with the management team and to take professional advice from one's own union and from the LEA. It is always important to retain the maximum flexibility in support of the needs of the child. More and more we need to make sure we know the law. We need to have strong links with families and communities to make sensitive situations easier to manage.

However, at the end of the day we have to manage all such challenges and dilemmas. We have responsibility in loco parentis for the children in our care and for the colleagues working with us. We cannot shirk unpleasant and difficult decisions but it helps to have tried professional networks of support.

Tamsyn Imison is headteacher of Hampstead School, north London

How would you manage the following imaginary scenarios?

A teenage boy responding to taunting by a girl cuts her face in a fight in the school. Would you physically restrain the boy? Would you summon help? How would you deal with the girl's bleeding face? Would you involve the police? Would the parents be involved? What would you do about excited, encouraging bystanders who might have engineered the whole thing?

A 14-year-old boy has been found to be helping his mother (a single parent) regularly every Wednesday afternoon when he clearly has a problem with a particular lesson. Do you break the law by condoning this? Do you try to build in flexibility by arranging extended work experience placement? Do you take the parent to court and insist on full attendance?

An under-age girl insists on complete confidentiality from a teacher or education social worker over her concerns that she has become HIV-positive as a result of a casual relationship. Do you not hear about it because it is known you cannot maintain confidentiality? Do you listen and make appropriate specialist advice available to the child? Do you inform the parents? What do you do if the parents ring to find out where the child is when she is getting help or an abortion? What do you do if the parents bring in a local MP? How do you as a headteacher get other services to break confidentiality?

A teacher is accused by a girl of making sexual advances when taking her home by car. As a headteacher, do you make any investigations first? Do you suspend the teacher without giving any information? How do you handle the interview with the teacher? What do you do if the teacher denies it and there are no witnesses? How do you handle the teacher's re-entry into the school and the other teachers' support for him against the student who made the allegations?

A Muslim family's daughter has had an abortion and is being sent back to relatives abroad, against her wishes, for a hastily-arranged marriage. Do you accept the family's right to manage this matter? Do you bring in other services to intervene? Supposing the family is blocked from taking this action, what support can you give if the girl then runs away to live with an under-age boy from the school?

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